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Priestly passions: Dean Robert Gregg talks about what's dear to his heart

Coltrane and Monk; Byzantine, Greek, Roman and Early Christian art; wide panoramic views; the flight of a golf ball; a community of friends and family and, most of all, his wife: These are a few of Robert Gregg's favorite things.

Gregg, the university's dean for religious life and a teaching professor of religious studies and classics, outlined his passions during an Oct. 29 session of the "What Matters to Me and Why" series in Memorial Church.

When Gregg was a youngster growing up in Texas, he was the one designated to wrest the one-armed bandit when the family entered an establishment with a slot machine. His family considered him just plain lucky. These days Gregg, an Episcopal priest, said he might use different words, such as "blessed" or "graced." Nevertheless, he never takes his gifts for granted. He, in fact, engages in the regular practice of what he calls the discipline of gratitude. "I have never met a single person whom I believe is more fortunate than I am. I wouldn't trade my life with anybody," Gregg said. "So the business of remembering on a regular basis how fortunate I am" is a high priority.

Passion Number One: His wife of 36 years, Mary Layne Gregg, whom he described as his lover, companion, soulmate and an irresistible human being. "The who in what matters to me." Talking about the challenges of his marriage, Gregg said couples often immerse themselves in professional work in order to avoid difficulties in a deep relationship. "Sometimes there is an instinct to take shelter in your work in order to walk around some of the challenges," he said, adding that his wife often gets his attention by announcing, "There is a dead bird between us."

Gregg's second priority is human flourishing: How people can thrive and how institutionalized bias, prejudice and self-destructive behavior can be an obstacle to reaching one's full potential. "Life can be experienced as rich, but I also know that there are all kinds of fetters, enslavements that need to be removed," Gregg said.

The "artichoke character of reality" is something that intrigues him. He is drawn to complexities in people and in literary and sacred texts. "My way of imagining Godness is completely connected to this notion of layers," Gregg said. Images of ascent, transcendence, purification, rarification and simplicity do not interest him; however, he is attracted to ideas of density and overlapping possibilities of meaning. "My own religious and spiritual tendencies are much more geological and archeological than they are astronomical or stratospheric. I don't know quite why this is or where it's all going, I just know that is my center of gravity. I think that is the way things are."

Life according to Gregg would not be complete without humor, he said. There is the ironic humor that helps us accept our own imperfections and "makes us know that we are all the naked emperor or empress." And there is the kind of spontaneous humor that erupts and often brings people to tears. Ironic humor, Gregg said, gives you perspective, especially on human pretentiousness, while the more spontaneous form keeps you loose. "In my experience, especially here, being kept loose is a very high priority."

Gregg added that he would prefer to be engaged in communal activities than to be involved in the more personal or interior pursuits. He said that accountability, faithfulness to an agreement and loyalty to others are some of the words by which he lives. "I think to be answerable is a good thing. The privilege and the promise of knowing others and being known, sharing some victories, sharing some losses is a good thing. For me, to be with is fairly fundamental to my sense of what it means to be," Gregg said.

Asked during the question and answer portion of the talk what led him to the ministry, Gregg said that his choice resulted from the confluence of things. Gregg grew up in a solid Episcopal family that encouraged him to seek answers to his questions through Christianity. The political climate of the '60s played a part as well. As an undergraduate at the University of the South in Tennessee, he got involved in the civil rights movement. Although his initial plan was to go to Harvard Business School after graduation, he decided that his passions lay elsewhere. The ministry seemed a more appropriate forum for addressing issues of social justice.

Even after Gregg entered the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., he queried himself regularly about his commitment to a career in the ministry. He was well into his graduate work before he was sure. "What I did not anticipate was that I would end up in academic life," he said, adding that he thought he would return to Texas and deal with social and political issues in which he had become involved. "And as you can tell, I have not done well in getting out of the schools," said Gregg, who taught at Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before coming to Stanford in 1987.

Even now Gregg said he checks in with himself to gauge his level of fulfillment and marvels at how varied his work is. "I do nearly every day at the end of the day reflect on the bewildering, rich variety of things that I'm involved in as a university chaplain, teacher, family member. To me, asking every day, 'What are you up to and why?' is an important part of the way I operate."


By Elaine Ray

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